Ali. Yeah. I was a kid. And this is my first TCA. I’ve never even done this before. I actually called Will [Smith] and said, ‘I understand!’ Like those days when I saw him pacing—‘Oh, are you tired? What’s up Will?’ Like a 10-year old, ‘Come play with me.’ I realize now… A lot of that now makes sense.
As the star and a producer of TV One’s first original scripted series “Love That Girl" (premiered Jan 5) Tatyana Ali says she now understands the pressure Will Smith felt when he starred in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in the early ‘90s. Back then, Ali was a kid in a supporting role. Now, she’s the star in her own show helmed by TV veteran Bentley Kyle Evans (“Martin,” “The Jamie Foxx Show”) and co-produced by Martin Lawrence. Pressure? Yep. CableFAX sat down with the actress to talk about the show, her return to TV and why there seem to be fewer African-American shows these days.
CableFAX: You’re obviously a sitcom veteran. Were you specifically looking for a sitcom project or did this just fall in your lap?
Ali: As an actor, I’m always looking for work—so there’s that. As a production company, I wanted to get into television. Everyone at the time was talking about the death of the black sit-com, and how they would never exist again. And I thought that was kind of silly—especially when there’s an audience that wants to see these shows. So when Bentley [Kyle Evans] came to us with the idea and the script for “Love That Girl”… it just made sense. I haven’t done a sitcom since “Fresh Prince,” and you get kind of spoiled. I mean, that was such a special show on so many levels for me, emotionally, the success of it, what it means to people now… the family feeling of it. So Bentley had written this character who was just amazing. I hadn’t seen a young woman portrayed in this way. So I kind of jumped in the first meeting and said, yes!
CableFAX: Has it felt a lot different than Fresh Prince or familiar?
Ali: It’s familiar in the sense of the camaraderie with the cast, and the writers and the whole team. It’s very familiar. Phil [Morris, who plays her dad] is just an extraordinary person and an actor’s actor. He almost just completely takes care of you. He’s just amazing. So the feeling with the cast—that’s very similar. But the schedule is totally different. We shoot three episodes a week instead of the traditional one episode a week. But we’ve all come from the traditional setting, so we know what the outcome is supposed to be. So we’re all just working triple time basically.
CableFAX: Welcome to cable.
Ali: Definitely, but there are some benefits to it too. One of the benefits is that we have a great deal of freedom because the network is young, and Bentley is a seasoned writer who has been on other networks before. So we’re kind of bringing our expertise to TV One. So the schedule is truncated, but creatively we’re given a lot of freedom.
CableFAX: Let’s switch gears. While there might be more roles for African Americans on TV these days, there seem to be fewer shows about the African-American experience than in years past. You were in one of the most successful black sit-coms in history and also majored in African-American studies at Harvard—so we consider you an expert. What’s going on here?
Ali: One of the things that’s going on is when you had UPN, the WB and Fox coming up as emerging networks, you had a lot of black shows on the air. And what tends to happen is—and I don’t know why—is that black shows tend to help grow a network. And then sometimes after the network has grown…
CableFAX: They ditch them?
Ali: They just don’t make them anymore.
CableFAX: Where’s the love?
Ali: I know, but now you have this proliferation of cable networks, and I do believe that these shows are going to help grow these networks. It’s unfortunate that it comes in waves. But it does. Honestly, I don’t really know the answer. But people speculate. They say there aren’t enough executives. There’s not enough diversity on that side of the networks and the companies that are producing and funding these shows. So they’re really just telling their perspective—things that relate to them. I think that there’s truth to that too. A network like TV One or BET—they understand the perspective. They understand that it’s not a monolithic perspective, that there can be three black shows, all about completely different things and coming from completely different points of view. It’s not a one-or-the-other sort of thing.
CableFAX: But with so many niche nets, can African-American themed shows ever find as wide a reach as something like “The Cosby Show” or Fresh Prince did back in the day?
Ali: I think that in the future what’s going to happen is that people change networks to watch shows. The networks don’t totally want to hear this, but there are so many channels… I know me as a viewer, I’m on on-demand, I’m online, finding the shows that I want to watch. [TV One svp, original programming] Toni Judkins talked about 40 years old being their median age group… This show is very youthful, and I think they’re going to find young people are coming to watch the show, because it has a lot of heart and sort of a dramatic base to it. There’s a moral to all the stories and the episodes. I think that lends itself to all audiences culturally. So I even think that “Love That Girl” could bring [gasps jokingly] non-African-American people to the network [laughs].
CableFAX: With this being TV One’s first sitcom, how much pressure do you feel?
Ali: I feel a lot of pressure for that reason. And it’s the first time I’ve ever been starring in a show, even though it is very much an ensemble. And this is the first time that I’m producing at the same time. So there’s a lot of pressure.
CableFAX: That’s got to be significantly different from your Fresh Prince experience.